'Masters of Chaos' rule over Paris tribal art museum

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Chaos and man's attempts to tame it are at the heart of a spectacular new show at Paris' museum of tribal arts that pits voodoo and shamanic artefacts alongside the work of contemporary artists.

By the entrance to the show stands a voodoo talisman meant to ward off evil spirits -- a colourful female statue with a calabash at its centre, and covered with grasses, fabric, palm oil and scraps of animal horn.

"She is there to watch over the museum, its staff and visitors," explained Aze Kokovivina, a voodoo priest and artist from Togo who "activated" the statue with ritual prayers ahead of the show opening this week.

"She is a force for good -- but she can lose her temper easily if she is not obeyed!" warned the 52-year-old in traditional African garb, who stood a smaller male calabash fetish by her side "to calm her down a little."

Until July 29, the Quai Branly museum on the banks of the Seine is showcasing more than 300 ethnological objects alongside two dozen contemporary artists, among them US giants like Paul McCarthy or the late Jean-Michel Basquiat.

"We are not saying these Western artists are chamans, but they are 'men at the edge' -- they are in the grip of forces that can be bigger than them," explained Bertrand Hell, science advisor for the exhibition.

Architects Jakob+MacFarlane designed the set for the show, a serpentine, mesh-and-plaster-covered steel structure that winds through the space, leading the visitor from one end to the other.

Starting with an exploration of chaos, the journey turns to the shamans and voodoo priests who would channel its forces.

"The visitor is swallowed up, transported and spat out at the other end," said the agency's Brendan MacFarlane. "The aim is for him to come out with a new perspective, enriched by all he has seen."

The show is the brainchild of Jean de Loisy, the curator of Anish Kapoor's "Monumenta" exhibit at the Grand Palais last year and chairman of Paris' newly revamped Palais de Tokyo contemporary art museum.

Its title, "Les Maitres du Desordre" (Masters of Chaos), is borrowed from a 1999 book on shamanism by French ethnologist Bertrand Hell.

"The idea of a disturbing force that exerts an influence on the world is universal," explained co-curator Nanette Jacomijn Snoep in her preface to the show. "We find it from Egypt to Ancient Greece, Morocco to Congo, Brazil to Greenland, and Bali to Siberia."

Pieces on show range from a 19th-century Sri Lankan exorcism mask, aimed at protecting pregnant women, and its modern-day equivalent: a 1975 video in which the US choreographer Anna Halprin -- a pioneer of the arts healing movement -- is shown to "expel" disease from her body through dance.

How shamans use psychoactive drugs to access the spirit world, is mirrored by a contemporary "Garden of Addiction" by the French duo Christophe Berdaguer and Marie Pejus, filled with vials of cocaine, opium and mysterious herbs.

Other works, ancient and new, explore the themes of mystic flight, metamorphosis, disease and healing, musical trance and the unbridled revelries that have served throughout the ages as a conduit for man's wilder impulses.

"No Art Without Chaos," concludes a work on show by the French artist Ben.

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